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Thinking Out Loud

Leadership Notebook 2: Theoretical Flies in the Practical Ointment

by Michael Jinkins | Sep 26, 2014
Leadership Notebook 2Several years ago, the seminary of which I was then dean was conducting interviews for an opening in the faculty. A professor on the search committee observed that while the candidate we had just interviewed seemed to possess a fairly good knowledge of certain aspects of her discipline, whenever she was asked a question on the subject of feminism, she could only speak anecdotally. My colleague observed that the candidate’s understanding of this subject was “insufficiently theorized.”

I asked my colleague what was meant by that phrase. The response was very interesting: “The candidate only spoke from her own individual experience, and however valuable that particular experience undoubtedly was, it neglected the rich multidimensional understanding of the subject. She had little or no knowledge of the critical literature, no familiarity beyond the most superficial and popular levels of discussion on the subject, and no understanding of the history of the most important conversations on this subject.”

The lack of sufficient theory meant that she did not know what to pay attention to and what to ignore in practice. On one level she was highly reactive, at another blithely unconscious. According to my colleague, the candidate needed a deeper engagement with theory on this subject if she was going to teach it.

Something similar can be said of many leaders and their practice of leadership. Their understanding of leadership is insufficiently theorized. Many leaders, actively engaged in the leadership of organizations, have little or no knowledge of the rich, varied and critical literature on the subject. Their knowledge is frequently only anecdotal, restricted to their own experiences or to pop publications. And as valuable as individual experiences and popularized resources can be, they can also leave us without the deep grounding we need to lead well.

In a public leadership course, which I taught jointly at an Episcopal and a Presbyterian seminary, I attempted to address this issue by presenting a few of the most crucial theoretical models for leadership. Students in the course learned these models and used them in analyzing case studies.

Before I presented the models themselves, I realized that we had a significant obstacle to clear regarding the meaning of “theory” and why “theory” matters in practice. The very word “theory” is sometimes used as a derogatory term. In the religious world “theory” ranks right up there with “myth” as a term misused and abused.

Theory is, in fact, a model for thinking about realities. It is a lens through which we bring the world into focus, and it represents a process for critically analyzing matters at hand. Theory does not simply play the egg to the chicken of practice. Virtually every practice bears within it (usually implicitly) a variety of theoretical understandings.

I once heard an astrophysicist define “theory” as a descriptive model for how reality functions. He said that although no theory is perfect and every theory has flaws, some theories are useful. For example, he observed that every physicist with whom he worked on the Hubble telescope project recognized that Albert Einstein’s theories represent the workings of the physical universe more profoundly, more accurately and more subtly than do the theories of Sir Isaac Newton. However, he added, if you want to get a rocket from the earth around the moon and back to earth again, you don’t resort to Einstein’s theories. You use Newtonian physics. Einstein’s theoretical model for the way the universe functions is not as useful for this particular task as Newton’s. However, a physicist who only has Newton’s model today is nowhere! We are best equipped to get things done when we are adept at using various theories and fitting the right model to the right situation.

In order for leadership to be both successful and effective, leaders are best served by practices enriched by theoretical awareness. Leaders need theories better to understand their practices. Ironically, a theory-rich practice can help leaders resist the temptation of living in thrall to the latest pop leadership fad du jour, being tossed first in this direction and that by dueling consultants and experts.

The next few Leadership Notebook blogs will explore very briefly a few genuinely helpful theoretical models that many have found particularly useful. For example, the October 10 Leadership Notebook will address one of the best known models among congregational leaders, the family systems theory. The reason many people have found this theory so valuable is because it provides both a set of understandings through which we can bring our practices into focus and because it provides a set of insights into organizational dynamics that can help us see what, perhaps, we had not previously noticed. The key to success here is to have more than just one theoretical model to help us understand what’s going on. Human organizations are extremely complex, requiring a variety of complementary (and sometimes contradictory) theories to make sense of them.

Max De Pree once said: “Leadership is an art, something to be learned over time, not simply by reading books. Leadership is more tribal than scientific, more a weaving of relationships than an amassing of information.”

De Pree’s insight, which I believe is right on target, actually supports the idea that theories can enrich practice. If we wish to practice an art well, if we want to learn over time (and not just repeat the same failed practices again and again), if we are going to weave relationships, we need lenses to help us see as well as possible what is really going on. That’s what good theory provides.

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